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No waves at Lakehead

Lakehead University, tucked away in the northern Ontario town of Thunder Bay, doesn’t make worldwide headlines all that often but last week the major news outlets made an exception when the school said ‘no’ to wireless Internet access.

Lakehead University, tucked away in the northern Ontario town of Thunder Bay, doesn’t make worldwide headlines all that often but last week the major news outlets made an exception when the school said ‘no’ to wireless Internet access.

Security was cited as one of the main reasons for not going WiFi, but probably the most significant rationale for the decision is the big question mark over what impact, if any, radio waves, microwaves and electromagnetic waves can have on health after prolonged exposure.

These days, most urban areas are blanketed by radio and microwaves, enabling cell phone and wireless devices. Power lines also generate electromagnetic waves, as do many of the electronic devices in our homes.

There have been a lot of studies on the topic to date, but none of them are definitive, or long-term enough to take into account the cumulative effects.

However, some researchers are concerned that exposure to waves may lead to various cancers and even miscarriages in the worst cases, and may also contribute to ailments like chronic fatigue, poor sleep and headaches.

According to a Globe and Mail Technology story ( ), Health Canada believes the only risks posed by wireless devices come from attempting to use them while driving a vehicle.

Speaking of wireless dangers…

In a past Cybernaut I wrote about how airlines were considering allowing the use of cell phones and other transmission/reception devices during flights. According to most experts who weighed in on the subject at the time, the airline ban has always had more to do with concerns over customer annoyance than with the issue of safety.

As a result of those opinions, and increasing pressure from airline customers and telecommunications lobbies, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission is even now considering whether to lift the ban on portable electronic devices during flights.

That was before last week, when a new study by Carnegie Mellon University discovered that some signals can and do interfere with critical aircraft systems.

For the purposes of the study, researchers brought monitoring equipment on board actual flights that measured various types of signals. Among other things, they discovered that between one and four illegal cell phone calls were made per flight in the northeastern U.S., and that some of those calls were made during critical take-off and landing times.

Researchers also found that devices like Laptops, DVD players and GPS receivers pose a greater risk than previously thought.

According to the authors of the study, "We found the risk posed by these portable devices is higher than we previously believed. These devices can disrupt normal operation of key cockpit instruments, especially Global Positioning System receivers, which are increasingly vital for safe landings."

No accident has ever been credited to the use of a portable electronic device, but researchers are recommending the ban on wireless devices and electronics stay in place. Just in case.

Wherefore art thou PS3?

So far sales of the Xbox 360 have been mixed, with U.S. retailers unable to keep up with demand, and retailers in places like Japan reporting an underwhelming response.

One reason given for the less than stellar sales is the fact that Microsoft’s manufacturing facilities simply could not keep up with orders.

Another reason is that the existing consoles are still quite good by any measure, and gamers may need a more compelling reason to upgrade than improved graphics. There are indications that consumers are waiting to see what Nintendo and Sony come up with for their next consoles before they buy in. They could be waiting a long time.

In recent weeks stories have surfaced that the launch of the PS3, expected this spring, will be delayed at least until the fall of 2006, and possibly even later.

According to some experts, the reason for the delay is economic, rather than a problem with the technology itself. Right now the cost of components for a PS3 add up to between $725 and $905 US, mostly because of the inclusion of a Blu-ray disk player. Those costs could be reduced by about $200 once manufacturing technologies catch up later this year.

Sony will definitely lose money for every unit sold, same as Microsoft loses money, but would lose less per unit in another six months than they would pushing up the release date to spring. The tradeoff is that the delay will enable Xbox 360 to further build its market share and capture a larger share of the games market, where the real money is.

The Xbox 360 is about $501 (down from $715) to build, which means Microsoft loses an average of $126 per unit sold. If the PS3 goes ahead sooner than later, and is priced competitively with the Xbox 360 ($399 Cdn for the Core console and $499 for the Premium model at Best Buy and Futureshop), Sony could lose up to $500 for every unit sold. You’d have to sell a lot of software (games), hardware (external hard drives, memory cards, extra controllers) and online subscriptions to gaming sites to make up that difference.

The good news for consumers is that companies are willing to eat a certain amount of the costs to make you a customer. The bad news is they will have to charge more for games, accessories, and so on to make that money back.